Putin’s cold, cold strategy

Sure, Putin still has a lot of fight in him. But ultimately: he’s a dead autocrat walking.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

In his speech on Monday evening recognizing the independence of the disputed eastern territories of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin called Ukrainians “our comrades.” He identified them as “not only colleagues, friends, former colleagues, but also relatives, people connected with us by blood, family ties.”

Pity the poor people that Vladimir Putin considers family. It’s like discovering one day that you’re related by blood to a clan of mobsters. Worse, somehow you have pissed off the godfather. That’s when you find out that family ties dictate that he rub you out in an honor killing. It’s a connection made by blood and severed in blood.

Sorry, comrade, that’s just the way it is sometimes with family.

Putin’s ludicrous, paranoid broadside—in which he falsely claimed that Ukraine was pursuing nuclear weapons and NATO intended to place Tomahawk missiles on Ukrainian territory—was just the prelude to authorizing Russian troops to enter the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as “peacekeepers.” It’s a grim peace, indeed, that Putin will be enforcing, for it comes after intensified shelling by Russian-backed separatists. Depending on which side you prefer to believe, the shelling was either to prevent Ukraine from mounting its own invasion or an effort to provoke the Ukrainians to respond and give the Kremlin a pretext for intervening.

Putin’s intervention is all about saving the residents of the disputed territories from a purported genocide being committed by the government in Kyiv. It’s an argument reminiscent of the Nazi decision to seize the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. In 1938, the head of the German party in the region, Konrad Henlein, claimed that the government in Prague was persecuting the German minority and the region needed autonomy. Really, what Henlein wanted was the Sudetenland’s absorption into the greater Nazi community, the “people connected with us by blood,” as Putin would put it.

Let’s hope that the historical analogy stops there, and Putin has no intention of invading Ukraine proper and seizing Kyiv. Perhaps he is just testing the waters to see how the rest of the world will respond to his brazenness.

For the time being, the Kremlin boss is pursuing the same strategy he tested out in Georgia and Moldova. There, too, Russian troops intervened on the side of breakaway regions and stayed on as “peacekeepers.”

The result, even today, are the “frozen conflicts” that have left both Georgia and Moldova half in and half out of the Russian sphere. The territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia considers under Russian military occupation, have been recognized by exactly four countries other than Russia (Nauru, Nicaragua, Syria, and Venezuela). The Transnistrian region of Moldova doesn’t even have that microscopic veneer of diplomatic recognition, for the only entities to recognize its independence are Abkhazia and South Ossetia (and something called the Republic of Artsakh, which has even more marginal legitimacy).

Such will be the likely fate of Donetsk and Luhansk: “independent” republics that few countries in the world will recognize. Meanwhile, as it did with Crimea, Russia will do what it can to integrate the region by stealth into the Russian imperium.

What’s the end game of this strategy? At some point, a ceasefire will end whatever fighting takes place there and anywhere else in Ukraine, and Russia will have added another “frozen conflict” to its perimeter. By this stratagem, Putin will attempt to prevent Ukraine from slipping further into the Western camp by fragmenting it, undercutting its economy, and forcing it to focus on the pain that still emanates from the territorial equivalent of ghost limbs.

The timing of Putin’s speech is intriguing. Out of deference to the Chinese, he waited for the Olympics to finish up on Sunday before taking his “family squabble” to the next level. And he made his speech just in time for it to be amplified by Donald Trump’s new social media application, which was supposed to go live this week but encountered numerous performance glitches (no surprise there). The new Truth Social app will eventually allow users to post “truths” and distribute “retruths.” Both Putin and Trump have had a highly instrumental approach to the truth, and they will likely spend much time over the next months re-truthing each other.

The response to Putin’s ice-cold maneuver has been swift but limited. The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Luhansk and Donetsk, then followed up with measures that sanctioned two Russian banks and restricted Moscow’s access to capital markets. U.S. politicians from both parties have called for the immediate application of tougher measures, such as blocking technology exports to Russia. Biden has offered a more tempered response, promising to “continue to escalate sanctions if Russia escalates.”

The European Union, meanwhile, is preparing sanctions against Putin’s inner circle. On top of that, Germany has delivered a more significant riposte by rescinding the certification of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline. Russian natural gas currently accounts for nearly 27 percent of Germany’s energy, so this is a consequential move for both sides. The United States has promised to step in to provide Europe with energy, while Russia is already in the process of redirecting the flow of its resources eastward.

It’s not at all clear whether these moves—or, frankly, any moves—will dissuade Putin from going about what he considers to be family business. Economic penalties are less meaningful since Russia embarked on a campaign of “sanctions-proofing.” As Max Fisher explains in The New York Times:

Russia has drastically reduced its use of dollars, and therefore Washington’s leverage. It has stockpiled enormous currency reserves, and trimmed its budgets, to keep its economy and government services going even under isolation. It has reoriented trade and sought to replace Western imports.

Let’s not make the mistake of using the Sudetenland analogy as the basis for arguing that the Biden administration and its European allies should avoid negotiating with the Kremlin for fear of signing a modern-day version of the Munich accord.

First of all, Putin is not after world domination. He’s leery of even reconstituting the Soviet Union, since he’d be hard-pressed to persuade (or force) the pieces of that broken vessel to glue themselves back together. Though this is cold comfort to the “colleagues, friends, former colleagues, but also relatives” that live on the outskirts of the Russian imperium, Putin actually has limited goals.

As such, meaningful diplomacy is still possible. It will require the same kind of give-and-take that has preserved the autonomy of (most of) Georgia and Moldova. Putin’s opponents, both inside and outside the country, can take heart in the fact that time is not on Putin’s side. He will turn 70 this year. His country’s economy is dependent on a drug—fossil fuels—to which the rest of the world wants to break its addiction. The very acts of aggression designed to keep neighboring countries close and dependent are only pushing them further away.

So, by all means, the Biden administration should negotiate. So should Germany. And so should Ukraine.

However crafty he might be, Putin is drawing his strategies from a twentieth-century playbook of territorial acquisition, fossil-fuel dependency, and would-be totalitarian control of the population. Okay, this antiquated epoch has not yet died out. Sure, Putin still has a lot of fight in him. But ultimately: he’s a dead autocrat walking.

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